News / Asia

    India's Billion-Member Biometric Database Raises Privacy Fears

    A villager goes through the process of a fingerprint scanner for the Unique Identification (UID) database system at an enrollment center at Merta district in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan, Feb. 22, 2013.
    A villager goes through the process of a fingerprint scanner for the Unique Identification (UID) database system at an enrollment center at Merta district in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan, Feb. 22, 2013.
    Reuters

    India's parliament is set to pass legislation that gives federal agencies access to the world's biggest biometric database in the interests of national security, raising fears the privacy of a billion people could be compromised.

    The move comes as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cracks down on student protests and pushes a Hindu nationalist agenda in state elections, steps that some say erode India's traditions of tolerance and free speech.

    It could also usher in surveillance far more intrusive than the U.S. telephone and Internet spying revealed by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, some privacy advocates said.

    The Aadhaar database scheme, started seven years ago, was set up to streamline payment of benefits and cut down on massive wastage and fraud, and already nearly a billion people have registered their finger prints and iris signatures.

    Now the BJP, which inherited the scheme, wants to pass new provisions including those on national security, using a loophole to bypass the opposition in parliament.

    "It has been showcased as a tool exclusively meant for disbursement of subsidies and we do not realize that it can also be used for mass surveillance," said Tathagata Satpathy, a lawmaker from the eastern state of Odisha.

    "Can the government ... assure us that this Aadhaar card and the data that will be collected under it - biometric, biological, iris scan, finger print, everything put together - will not be misused as has been done by the NSA in the U.S.?"

    Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has defended the legislation in parliament, saying Aadhaar saved the government an estimated 150 billion rupees ($2.2 billion) in the 2014-15 financial year alone.

    A finance ministry spokesman added that the government had taken steps to ensure citizens' privacy would be respected and the authority to access data was exercised only in rare cases.

    According to another government official, the new law is in fact more limited in scope than the decades-old Indian Telegraph

    Act, which permits national security agencies and tax authorities to intercept telephone conversations of individuals in the interest of public safety.

    'Police state'

    Those assurances have not satisfied political opponents and people from religious minorities, including India's sizeable Muslim community, who say the database could be used as a tool to silence them. "We are midwifing a police state," said Asaduddin Owaisi, an opposition MP.

    Raman Jit Singh Chima, global policy director at Access, an international digital rights organization, said the proposed Indian law lacked the transparency and oversight safeguards found in Europe or the United States, which last year reformed its bulk telephone surveillance program.

    He pointed to the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which must approve many surveillance requests made by intelligence agencies, and European data protection authorities as oversight mechanisms not present in the Indian proposal.

    The Indian government brought the Aadhaar legislation to the upper house of parliament on Wednesday in a bid to secure passage before lawmakers go into recess.

    To get around its lack of a majority there, the BJP is presenting it as a financial bill, which the upper chamber cannot reject. It can return it to the lower house, where the ruling party has a majority.

    In its assessment of the measure, New Delhi-based PRS Legislative Research said law enforcement agencies could use someone's Aadhaar number as a link across various datasets such as telephone and air travel records.

    That would allow them to recognize patterns of behavior and detect potential illegal activities.

    But it could also lead to harassment of individuals who are identified incorrectly as potential security threats, PRS said.

    Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bengaluru-based Centre for Internet and Society, said Aaadhaar created a central repository of biometrics for almost every citizen of the world's most populous democracy that could be compromised.

    "Maintaining a central database is akin to getting the keys of every house in Delhi and storing them at a central police station," he said.

    "It is very easy to capture iris data of any individual with the use of next generation cameras. Imagine a situation where the police is secretly capturing the iris data of protesters and then identifying them through their biometric records."

     ($1 = 67.0500 Indian rupees)

     

    You May Like

    Chechen Suspected in Istanbul Attack, but Questions Remain

    Turkish sources say North Caucasus militants involved in bombing at Ataturk airport, but name of at least one alleged attacker raises doubts

    With Johnson Out, Can a New ‘Margaret Thatcher’ Save Britain?

    Contest to replace David Cameron as Britain’s prime minister started in earnest Thursday with top candidates outlining strategy to deal with Brexit fallout

    US Finds Progress Slow Against Human Trafficking in Africa

    Africa continues to be a major source and destination for human trafficking of all kinds -- from forced labor to sexual slavery, says State Department report

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Eitheri
    X
    Jim Malone
    June 29, 2016 6:16 PM
    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Clinton Leads Trump, But Many Voters Don't Like Either

    In the U.S. presidential race, most recent polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton with a steady lead over Republican Donald Trump as both presumptive party nominees prepare for their party conventions next month. Trump’s disapproval ratings have risen in some recent surveys, but Clinton also suffers from high negative ratings, suggesting both candidates have a lot of work to do to improve their images before the November election. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Slow Rebuilding Amid Boko Haram Destruction in Nigeria’s Northeast

    Military operations have chased Boko Haram out of towns and cities in Nigeria’s northeast since early last year. But it is only recently that people have begun returning to their homes in Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, to try to rebuild their lives. For VOA, Chris Stein traveled to the area and has this report.
    Video

    Video New US Ambassador to Somalia Faces Heavy Challenges

    The new U.S. envoy to Somalia, who was sworn into office Monday, will be the first American ambassador to that nation in 25 years. He will take up his post as Somalia faces a number of crucial issues, including insecurity, an upcoming election, and the potential closure of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. VOA’s Jill Craig asked Somalis living in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi how they feel about the U.S. finally installing a new ambassador.
    Video

    Video At National Zoo, Captivating Animal Sculptures Illustrate Tragedy of Ocean Pollution

    The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is home to about 1,800 animals, representing 300 species. But throughout the summer, visitors can also see other kinds of creatures there. They are larger-than-life animal sculptures that speak volumes about a global issue — the massive plastic pollution in our oceans. VOA's June Soh takes us to the zoo's special exhibit, called Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora